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Traveling in Style: A Rebuilt ’85 Mercedes Powered by Vegetable Oil

ODA engineering students took the road trip of a lifetime to visit a prospective college.

Presented by The Out-of-Door Academy October 31, 2019

Brian Lutton and Andrew Dowdell with their newly purchased car - before the renovations.

Two seniors at The Out-of-Door Academy, Andrew Dowdell and Brian Lutton, modified a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 300CD to run on vegetable oil to power a 6,000 mile-road trip to visit their future college.

These mechanical enthusiasts and engineering students wanted to fix up a car over the summer and decided converting it to run on vegetable oil would offer a unique challenge and incorporate alternative energy sources to promote environmental sustainability. They purchased the 34-year-old Benz, which had been abandoned in a field, and spent weeks cleaning the interior and replacing the vacuum system, fuel injectors, fuel lines, coolant system, and hoses, rewiring almost every system. Using the problem-solving skills and knowledge obtained through various computer engineering and computer science courses, they retrofitted the fuel system for use with a used vegetable oil kit. After countless hours working to ensure the vehicle was road-worthy, the newly registered car, dubbed “John,” was filled with its vegetable oil fuel at the local Waffle House, and with plenty of snacks for the road, the students were off.  

Andrew and Brian departed from Sarasota, traveled up the entire eastern seaboard to the Canadian border, then drove south to visit Kettering University, in Flint, Michigan—the school they both plan to attend. It proved to be an eventful journey, to say the least, in which getting from point A to point B presented many a learning opportunity. 

A peek inside the vegetable oil tank.

In between refueling on vegetable oil recycled from Waffle Houses along the way, fording a river on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie destroyed the axle boots, an instrument cluster fuse melted in Rhode Island, the motor mount failed in Bar Harbor, and the terminals caught fire in Massachusetts. Each of these challenges was met head on, and there was never thought of cutting the trip short.

“The trip really helped me expand upon my knowledge of cars, and I learned a lot about quick fixes when the car broke down,” recalls Andrew.  “I will never forget when we were driving through Worcester, Mass., and smoke started pouring out of the dashboard. We got the car to the side of the road and immediately got to work. I disconnected the battery to stop the fire from growing while Brian put out the fire.”

After making their way south to Youngstown, Ohio, to Brian’s grandmother’s home, the boys enjoyed the first home cooking they’d had in weeks. The next day, they woke early in anticipation of their visit to Kettering University.

Lutton-Dowdell-Kettering.jpg: (L-R) Brian Lutton and Andrew Dowdell arrive at Kettering College in "John," a car powered by vegetable oil.

“We drove to the campus and the sight of the Kettering University sign over John’s red hood is a picture that will stick with me forever,” says Brian.  “All of the work we put in over the past months came together at that moment when we rolled past the sign and parked in the admissions parking lot. We were almost immediately approached by inquisitive students who were interested in the car’s story and why we were there. I talked to students, staff, and anyone who was curious. After we left the campus, as we were driving up the hill, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the school where I want to spend the next four years of my life.”

Andrew and Brian say that although the trip was challenging, they both came away from the experience with a great sense of accomplishment. “We had fun along the way, tested the water with different modifications, and most importantly, we learned so many things,” says Brian.